For Irish American media, the digital revolution is more road bump than obstacle course.
When editor-in-chief Ray O’Hanlon walks into the New York offices of the Irish Echo, the oldest Irish American newspaper in the country, it doesn’t take him long to get down to business. He reads first: news from around the web, ideas from freelancers, and articles that need editing. Then he’ll meet with his assistant editor to talk about how to fill the week’s paper.
O’Hanlon said the Irish Echo’s editorial formula is fairly simple: anything he decides is relevant to the Irish American community goes in. If there’s a big issue making news back in Ireland, he’ll pen an editorial, because he wants the Echo to “become an important forum for debate” in the community. A week before Election Day in the U.S., the Echo officially renewed its support for President Obama, saying his immigration policies would benefit the Irish and bemoaning the legislative roadblocks in the divided U.S. Congress.
“If any entity deserves a pink slip, it is Congress, which looks all too often like a class in need of a teacher,” the editorial said. “This president has had to tolerate more nonsense than most.”
O’Hanlon’s days are less angst-filled than those of his counterparts at mainstream American media. The digital revolution may have rocked U.S. journalism to its core, forcing mainstream newspapers across the country to lay off staff and fight for financial survival. But it hasn’t seriously threatened the reader base of major Irish American news organizations, which number at seven nationwide, according to Yahoo.com. Irish Americans still want news about their community, and there simply aren’t many outlets that provide it.
“People who want national news can go almost anywhere for that information,” said Amy Mitchell, deputy director at the Project for Excellence in Journalism, a Washington-based nonprofit group that studies media.
“Ethnic media provide its readers something to connect to,” Mitchell said. “Readers create a relationship with the brand. It’s more in-depth, and more than just a place to find the news.”
The Irish Echo caters to its audience with previews of Irish events, like the recent Irish Day of Action in New York. Its coverage of Superstorm Sandy has focused on volunteer recruitment to help in the storm-devastated Rockaways, a Queens neighborhood with a strong Irish American community.
The Echo also has its specific audience in mind with recurring features like “Irish Echo 40 under 40,” profiling influential Irish Americans such as Bloomberg TV anchor Margaret Brennen and New York City Council Member Elizabeth Crowley. “Irish Hospitality 50,” another regular feature, highlights leading Irish American figures in the hotel and restaurant businesses – all in the name of building community, said O’Hanlon.
“There are definitely some stories we’d like to cover but just can’t,” he said, pointing to New York City crime stories (unless the Irish American community is involved) as one example. “But we have readers all across the country, and if we don’t give them the kind of news they want, they’re on the phone to us in two seconds,” said O’Hanlon. “It’s actually very encouraging.”
From its small office in New York’s Financial District, the Irish Echo reaches more than 100,000 Irish Americans by subscription and newsstand sales. It circulates from Belfast to Honolulu, and this year, its 84th, the weekly is expected to remain profitable, according to its publisher, Máirtín Ó Muilleoir. Last year, the Echo made about $100,000 before bonuses, a figure Ó Muilleoir said “is modest, but we’re happy with it.”
But for the Irish Echo, profitability does have a price.
Since the days when the Echo was sold to New Yorkers off the back of horse drawn carts, it’s been forced to gradually downsize both its staff and its overall budget. During its peak in the 1980s, the Irish Echo had about 20 staffers, ranging from junior reporters to ad salesmen working out of two large New York offices, according to O’Hanlon. Today, it has downsized its office space and its staff – only six people work fulltime at the paper now, two journalists and four ad salesmen. It relies on a network of 10 or so freelancers to fill the paper, paying about 15 cents a word for their articles.
And recently, the Irish Echo has also felt pressure from a new, online-only competitor, IrishCentral.com, founded in 2009.
IrishCentral was created by Niall O’Dowd, a one-time Irish presidential candidate, as the online platform for two publications he founded in the 1980s, Irish America magazine and the Irish Voice weekly newspaper.
With 1.1 million unique visitors a month – most under age 30 – IrishCentral dwarfs the circulation of its two print publications, as well as the traffic to rival the Echo’s website.
That’s forced a shift in the Echo’s overall editorial vision, according to O’Hanlon. Since assuming the editorship in 2007, he’s prioritized opinion pieces in an effort to make the Echo a place for more in-depth community discussion that isn’t offered anywhere else. That leaves breaking news to the faster-moving IrishCentral, which produces more content on a daily basis.
“The print edition cannot compete as an instant news source, so it was sort of forced to reinvent itself,” O’Hanlon said. “We expanded our op-ed section because we see ourselves as real good source for opinion within the Irish community.”
Ciaran Staunton, president of the Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform, reads both the Irish Echo and IrishCentral regularly and says both outlets are “something of a must-read for us,” because it helps his group stay close to Irish American views on current events. Megan McGough, a regular reader of the Echo and owner of an Irish Dance Academy in the Bronx, said it’s widely read in her Irish American-heavy community, so she’s pleased whenever her business gets mentioned in the paper.
“We’re only a new company, so when we get covered by places like the Echo, it shows people that we’re for real,” McGough said.
Máirtín Ó Muilleoir, the publisher of the Irish Echo and CEO of Belfast Media Group, the parent company that purchased a majority stake in the Echo in 2006, said that because his newspaper occupies such a specific niche in the marketplace, it doesn’t feel the same pressure other newspapers do to give away their content free on the Internet.
The Echo generally doesn’t post all of its content on its website, and when an article does appear there, it’s usually a few days after it’s appeared in the newspaper that readers pay for.
“There’s no magic wand to make a profit,” Ó Muilleoir said. “We’re always looking for innovative ways to bring in new revenues to build on a bedrock of good journalism.” One recent change: a new iPad version of the Echo.
Ó Muilleoir added that while the business model in place at the Echo wouldn’t work for everyone, “If you believe that journalism is of value, then you have to make your mind up, are you going to give it away or insist people pay for it?” In the case of the Irish Echo, he said, “We know where we stand.”